Corporate manslaughter: Could it bring justice for London fire victims?

London fire, tower

The disaster at Grenfell Tower has been described by David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, as a case of “corporate manslaughter”. According to English law, companies and organisations can be found guilty of corporate manslaughter as a result of serious management failures, resulting in a gross breach of a duty of care.

Amid calls for arrests, it’s time to consider whether the failings that led to the Grenfell disaster could possibly justify the use of the label “corporate manslaughter” – and what this would mean for victims who seek justice.

Prosecutions for this offence are of a corporate body (defined broadly enough to include public authorities) and not individuals – so we probably won’t see any pictures of executives being led away in handcuffs. That said, directors, board members and others may still be liable to prosecution under health and safety law or general criminal law. The offence also covers contractors and sub-contractors, so long as they owe a duty of care to the victims.

A duty of care is an obligation, whereby an organisation must take reasonable steps to protect a person’s safety. Legally, it is broadly understood as avoiding negligence by not placing people in danger. These duties also exist in relation to workplaces and equipment, as well as to products or services supplied to customers. This suggests that when an entity exercises control over people and spaces it has a responsibility to protect them.

The corporate manslaughter offence uses the same definitions of duty of care as the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter. This means that the threshold for the offence is high – the way that activities were managed or organised must have fallen seriously far below reasonable standards.

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